How the Church Fails Businesspeople -- A Review
HOW THE CHURCH FAILS BUSINESSPEOPLE (And What Can Be Done About It). By John C. Knapp. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012. xiv + 178 pp.
Does the church have something to offer businesspeople? Or are church and work two different worlds that simply don’t relate to each other? In many ways the church has looked at the world of business as a foreign entity. It recognizes that people do earn their livings working in that world, but find it difficult to connect with it. The church enjoys the bounty that business brings to the offering, but does little to empower people to live faithfully in that environment.
This is the issue that John Knapp takes up in his book How the Church Fails Businesspeople. Knapp teaches business and ethics at Samford University, and from his experience, has concluded that the church has failed to offer the people of God any real help in navigating the world of work, but believes there are ways in which the church can engage people where they work outside the walls of the church. So, what can be done to rectify this situation? Now, if you think that this is a question of little relevance, consider this point – Millennials, those who are between 18 and 35 no longer seek to balance personal and work, but instead seek to integrate them. If the church offers them nothing that is relevant to their work life, then the church likely will lose any hope of connecting with this new generation.
What is at stake here is the question of how we live integrated, holistic lives, where what we believe about God relates to how we earn a living. But the church seems rather ill-equipped to assist with this question. Knapp made use of DMin students at Columbia Theological Seminary to do some polling, and what he found was that most church members would never think of approaching their pastor for guidance when it comes to matters of work and business. They simply have no confidence that their pastor would even understand what they’re going through. After all, they likely had never heard a sermon addressing issues, and the way in which the church is organized would give them no confidence that something of value could be provided. Many of the issues at hand are ethical in nature, and you would think that the church would be a great place to go for help, but such is not the case. But, what if instead of “uninspired ethical pragmatism,” Christians could draw upon “the wellspring of Christian wisdom?” Why is it that the concepts most often applied to church and faith – God, love, prayer, forgiveness” seem to have no place in our understanding of the business/work world?
Taking our faith seriously at work isn’t easy. This stems in part from the business culture that tends to discourage such expression, preferring that one park one’s faith at the door. It’s easy to understand why, the religious world is increasingly diverse and pluralistic, and often religion can prove divisive. But there is much that can drawn upon that can enhance work life, both giving meaning and ethical guidance. Many people face the dilemma that their faith values often conflict with what is being expected of them at work. At the same time they get little support from the church, where greater attention is placed on living faithfully through volunteerism and community engagement than on bringing one’s faith into the way one is at work. There is also the feeling that clergy are largely disinterested in the work lives of their people.
What is the cause of this disconnect? There are a number of reasons suggested, including an unfortunate distinction between sacred and secular, so that a hierarchy of occupations emerges. At the top are Christian ministries like being a pastor or a missionary. These are callings. Helping professions, such as nurses and social workers, come closer to these higher callings, but the rest merely have a job. Knapp asks the question – what are we saying to our people when we commission short term mission teams in a service, but then fail to “commission new college graduates for their careers in business or government or education.” He continues: “The crippling and unambiguous message is that ten days of volunteer work are more important to the church – and, by implication, to God – than a Christian’s lifelong occupation.” As I read this, I realize that I have participated in perpetuating just this dichotomy. Part of the problem, he suggests, stems from theological education, which does little to equip clergy for working with and supporting people in their vocations.
The first half of the book deals with these “divided worlds,” looking at the issue from a variety of vantage points, including biblical and historical angles. The issue is important and must be addressed, which is what he does in the second half of the book. As problematic as the situation is, it can be rectified, if we’re willing to attend to the task.
We do this by rethinking the way in which we view Christian vocation, and in doing so recognize that not every form of work is God’s work. Some forms of work are demeaning and even illegal. Thus, the question is – when should a Christian leave a job for moral or spiritual reasons?
Having started with the question of vocation, he calls for the church to develop a moral theology of work, and points us to Micah 6:8 as a starting point. Micah asks the question – what is good and what does God require of us? The answer is found in three principles: justice, loving kindness, and humility. From this passage he develops an ethic of love and responsibility. As with Charles Sheldon, famed author of In His Steps, a book that Knapp considers a valuable guide, we should take Jesus as our model. But, even as we look to Jesus as our guide, the church must play an important role. It should serve as “a community of moral discernment,” a community that together seeks prayerfully to discern what is good and right, and seeking together to know what God is doing in a given situation. It also serves as “a community of moral discourse,” that is a community where the people of God can debate the “thornier issues of business and professional life” so that they can broaden perspectives and ask important questions. It must also be a “community of moral influence” that advocates for social justice in a way that challenges the way business is engaged. It is also a “community of moral encouragement and moral example.
The church provides a community that encourages and assists in the development of a moral theology that can guide people as they navigate the world of work. But, even as it provides this moral foundation, it can also encourage and assist what he calls a “workplace awakening.” This is a movement of the laity that seeks to connect Sunday and Monday, integrating faith and work, but doing so in a way that is not detrimental to the workplace. He mentions a variety of efforts to encourage such an awakening, both on the part of employers and employees. One expression is chaplaincy for business, but more simply, some businesses are simply giving space and place for people to practice their faith.
In the final chapter, Knapp argues that the church has significant potential to assist and encourage faithful spiritual practice in the workplace. I can do this by rethinking its understanding of ministry, so that it can take business seriously. It can do this by encouraging collaborative leadership in the church, have courageous conversations about the relationship of faith and work, make sure that the worship is relevant to the questions of businesspeople (this isn’t an issue of style, as much as making sure that prayers, hymns, and sermons address the world of work), and finally create a narrative that is inclusive of the workday world. And why? Well, work is where many people spend a majority of their lives. Must they park their faith when they enter their jobs? Is God absent from the world? And, if it is true that Millennials aren’t creating the same distinction between sacred and secular that earlier generations have been making, then if we are to engage them as church, we must understand the way they think and live their work lives and their spiritual lives.
As a pastor I find this book both challenging and encouraging. It challenges me to be proactive in making sure that what I do as pastor connects with the world of work. It challenges me to rethink the way I preach and the topics I address. It challenges this sacred/secular divide that we moderns have erected. It’s encouraging because it offers insights into how we go about this transformation. It doesn’t offer a blue print, but it does provide significant resources, including biblical and theological resources, that we can draw upon.
We can be thankful that John Knapp has written this book. While we must be careful not to simply envision church as a place of moral development, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the church is a place where moral development and transformation can and should take place. It’s an excellent book that needs wide circulation, especially now, as we live in a time of economic stagnation and when questionable business practices sent the economy spiraling downward. There is increasing disillusionment with the business world, even as there is with government, and even in the church, which has stumbled in its response. Looking at business from the perspective of Jesus and of Micah could be a blessing to our nation and world.